What distinguishes the Palmetto State’s K-12 reform debate from all the others is that it’s being led by an outspoken, retired Army brigadier general and former college president who is eager to take on the “liberal education establishment.”
State Superintendent of Education Mick Zais, a Republican, won election in 2010 by a huge margin of 108,000 votes. He has been in office for just over a year, but he has rankled lawmakers of both political parties by refusing to accept federal education dollars from President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative that gives states money in exchange for approved school reforms.
While other states are eager for the federal assistance, Zais argues that the one-time handouts come with strings attached and quickly turn into unfunded mandates, ultimately driving up education costs and stripping local communities of control over their schools.
“We don’t have a shortage of dollars in South Carolina’s schools, we have a shortage of accountability, competition and incentives,” Zais told EAG.
It's unclear when Zais took time to talk with EAG, a right-wing political organization, but perhaps it was on his own time rather than on state's clock. Taxpayers want to be sure that their dollars aren't being used to subsidize political activity.
Zais has told EAG that "South Carolina spends $11,700 per student, slightly above the national average," when he, better than anyone, knows that South Carolina spends less than $2,000. He knows it because he said so to the legislative budget committee on education:
Zais asked a Ways and Means panel Wednesday not to cut a key funding stream for classrooms, but he did not ask for an increase. The so-called base student cost primarily pays teacher salaries. The current per-student allocation is about $1,900 because of recession budget cuts. A state funding formula calls for it to be nearly $2,800 this year.
Had Zais accepted the offer of federal dollars from the Obama administration, that figure might have been a bit higher. But he didn't, and in his profile interview with EAG, he ridiculed the offer:
“If South Carolina had accepted its slice of the Race to the Top pie, it would equal $2.22 per student per year, for four years,” Zais said. “The idea that $2.22 would make a big difference is just nonsense. That’s not even a rounding error.”
Then, after delivering a sound smack to the federal government that afforded him a career-long military salary, and that will afford him a tasty retirement package, Zais turned his guns to professional educators.
Such views have drawn the ire of the “education industrial complex,” Zais’ term for those who place the interests of adult school employees ahead of the needs of students, and who claim failing public schools can be fixed with a checkbook.
“Traditional proposals for improving education – more money, better facilities, improved curriculum and smaller classes – will not work. We’ve tried that. We’ve tried that for 40 years,” Zais recently told an audience, according to the IndependentMail.com.
Here again, Zais tells out-of-state interviewers a tale that he knows is untrue. South Carolina's pre-eminent historian, Walter Edgar, could undercut this argument in only a couple of minutes, with an answer spanning three hundred years, and cap it with a "bless your heart" at the end.
See, educators have told lawmakers for generations how much it would cost to provide quality public education to all the state's children. But that figure has always been too high for South Carolina's corporate overlords, and it included too many children -- especially poor ones, and minority ones -- so the legislature has funded what it has chosen to fund, and told educators to make do.
Since the Education Finance Act was adopted in 1977, establishing the base student cost to be appropriated by the legislature annually, that figure has been fully-funded fewer than 10 times. It's all a matter of fact and history. Had Zais lived in South Carolina before coming to take the presidency of a small private college, he might have a better grasp on our state's education history.
And Zais himself has trotted out the old canard "I don't know if the money will be available" when it has suited his agenda to do so.
So to say that spending more money, building better facilities, improving curriculum and reducing class sizes won't work because "We’ve tried that. We’ve tried that for 40 years" is not merely a lie, but what we Southerners like to call a damn lie. That's the opposite of a little white lie.
Know your culture.
No matter. After telling that lie, Zais moved on to a lesser target: Moderate members of his own party.
Zais told EAG that while the nation’s teachers unions – the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers – comprise the heart of the “education industrial complex,” they are enabled by weak-willed Republicans.
“The education industrial complex is bipartisan,” Zais said. “We have RINOs – Republicans in Name Only – who are intimidated by the lobbying groups that get the public and the teachers all excited that we’re trying to destroy public education. In reality, we want to make it better and more accountable.”
Surely he didn't have this conversation from his office in the Rutledge Building, on a state telephone. Such blatant political conversation has no place in our state agencies.
Perhaps Sen. Phil Leventis will file another Freedom of Information Act request and find that out for us.
Then Zais described how he defies his oath of office, the one that made him the chief advocate for South Carolina's 700,000 public schoolchildren.
“Our traditional schools have a monopoly,” Zais said. “And monopolies have little incentive for improving or controlling costs. Accountability, competition and incentives have the power to transform the system.”
Zais’ education reform proposals are designed to break that monopoly.
See, those "traditional schools," the ones that Zais calls a "monopoly," are the ones that the state Constitution creates a state superintendent of education to support. It's plain as the nose on one's face.
SECTION 1. State Board of Education.
There shall be a State Board of Education composed of one member from each of the judicial circuits of the State. The members shall be elected by the legislative delegations of the several counties within each circuit for terms and with such powers and duties as may be provided by law and shall be rotated among the several counties. One additional member shall be appointed by the Governor. The members of the Board shall serve such terms and the Board shall have such powers and duties as the General Assembly shall specify by law. (1972 (57) 3193; 1973 (58) 44.)
SECTION 2. State Superintendent of Education.
There shall be a State Superintendent of Education who shall be the chief administrative officer of the public education system of the State and shall have such qualifications as may be prescribed by law. (1972 (57) 3193; 1973 (58) 44.)
SECTION 3. System of free public schools and other public institutions of learning.
The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a system of free public schools open to all children in the State and shall establish, organize and support such other public institutions of learning, as may be desirable. (1972 (57) 3193; 1973 (58) 44.)
SECTION 4. Direct aid to religious or other private educational institutions prohibited.
No money shall be paid from public funds nor shall the credit of the State or any of its political subdivisions be used for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution. (1972 (57) 3193; 1973 (58) 44.)
See the words in Section 2: "who shall be the chief administrative officer of the public education system of the State"? That means, if there IS a traditional-schools monopoly in South Carolina, the superintendent is the person who leads the monopoly. The superintendent isn't authorized under the Constitution to lead the state's private schools, or parochial schools, or home schools, or unschools. It's in plain English. Which we still teach in South Carolina, right? Isn't it one of the subjects that's tested eight times a week?
If Zais didn't want to do that job, maybe he shouldn't have run for office.
Nevertheless, EAG swallowed Zais's line whole, then cast Zais as a one-man conservative army against a tide of "politically weak" educators and local leaders.
While state superintendents such as Zais have the power to advocate for education reforms, the decision-making power rests with the state legislators. South Carolina is a politically conservative state, but that doesn’t mean Zais’ reforms will be warmly embraced.
His strongest opposition will likely come from local school officials, who wield a surprising amount of political power in the state.
South Carolina is a “right-to-work” state, which means teachers are not required to join their local union. That renders the South Carolina Education Association and the Palmetto State Teachers Association politically weak.
However, the state’s superintendents all belong to the South Carolina Association of School Administrators, and every school board member belongs to the South Carolina School Boards Association. The SCASA and the SCSBA fill the left-wing power vacuum created by the anemic teacher unions.
Given the groups’ unique role in South Carolina’s education system, school districts pay for their school board officials and superintendents to become members of these organizations.
As a result, the two associations have multi-million dollar budgets, which allow them to hire a number of lawyers and lobbyists to represent their interests.
In the end, writes EAG, there's Zais the heroic warrior, blocking these "politically weak" educators from dominating the state as they have... er, from dominating... um, well, actually, from not dominating anything.
But after building him up as a conquering avenger, and making the case that he really doesn't have any strong opponents to conquer, EAG is left to offer a summary that's as weak as Zais's own testimony before legislative committees: "He is popular with the people," and "for the first time, the state superintendent office doesn’t serve as the de facto headquarters of the SCSBA or the SCASA.”
That's funny, I don't recall that Superintendents Jim Rex, Inez Tenenbaum or Barbara Nielsen took their marching orders from SCSBA or SCASA, either.
Zais will likely have this article framed for hanging in the office. It's better than anything The State will do for him.